Doesn’t really need any comment, does it? because it speaks for itself, although it does point up that my criticisms of Leader and CEO, or rather the “policies” that they’re promulgating, apparently in ignorance (arguable) that it’s all been tried and abandoned before, are anything but a case of my making mischievous political capital out of the ignorance of others.
But be assured that my criticisms have a basis in “our” experience of those earlier policy changes. Relative newbies are doubtless scratching their heads wondering what all the fuss is about. I’m talking about 2013.
Although – in this context – “policy” is probably the wrong word, it’s more about the decision to simply do nothing to counter criticism because, hey, why bother? After all, what is there to bother about anyway? Although that’s not strictly true because at least one of the opposition makes their opposition known by parking in a clearly signed “Cabinet Members Only” reserved parking spot. Well, revolutions have to start somewhere and it’s a harmless enough vanity anyway. Bit sweet, actually.
But a bit of history for you that will probably earn me another accusation of vanity, but after all, isn’t that what a “journal” is all about?
I’m actually the only councillor to have resigned from a scrutiny committee after its first meeting, after allowing time to “sleep on it”, to allow any doubts to settle.
What doubts there might have been settled readily enough, long enough to realise that the system was a waste of time, and explained why Keith Barrow had given me a funny look when, a few days before, during one of the occasional breaks when a bunch of us were having a cosy collegiate cross-party coffee in the (politics-free) ‘Members Room’ (ah, those were the days), I’d congratulated Keith on setting up “a cross-party system of scrutiny along the lines of the All–Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) to hold his (Keith Barrow’s) Cabinet to account”. Ah, the innocence!
Whilst I was genuinely impressed, poor Keith was genuinely taken aback, doubtless wondering what the hell he’d said to give me that impression, whether he had, in fact, committed himself to such a nightmarish position as to open himself up to effective criticism. I remember a couple of other heads had turned on hearing what I’d said, but no one said anything, probably, I realise now, because they couldn’t believe anyone would be daft enough to actually read as much into the situation as this innocent new councillor with so much to learn about how our council worked!
I held on to my innocent conviction that all was right with the world until our first scrutiny committee meeting when the law according to the Cabinet was read out to us.
Also on that scrutiny committee (I can’t for the life of me remember which one it was, only that it was chaired by Vince Hunt) was the venerable North Shropshire councillor Arthur Walpole, a straight-talking guy of few words, although those few were usually pertinent enough to be worth remembering. I liked Arthur from the off.
I resigned with Arthur Walpole’s reaction still in my head, having been told by the committee officer at that first meeting that scrutiny committees were critical friends to Cabinet: “Bees that pollinate, not wasps that sting!
Arthur (I still recall his distinctive no-nonsense northern voice) was sitting directly opposite me in the Shrewsbury Room and sort of “exploded”. He turned to Vince and said: “I wouldn’t have bothered if I thought we were here just to point out where the banana skins were to members of the Cabinet!”
When I resigned from that scrutiny committee there was an avalanche of protest, none of it addressing the reasons given for resigning – based largely on my agreeing with Arthur that it was simply a waste of time and breath.
Over the following few days I was accused of putting extra pressure on my “colleagues” who would, now, have to pick up the slack that that my standing down had created; that I was throwing away the opportunity to “have my say” (which was precisely my point, that “saying” was all committee members could actually do); and put our Independent committee position in jeopardy. Gosh. I genuinely couldn’t believe that my action was having such far-reaching consequences; this was the end of the world, or some worlds anyway!
I did subsequently reverse my decision but only because the then Leader of the Independents, Pauline Dee, more or less pleaded with me to retain the group’s place on the committee. So it was affection and loyalty for Pauline Dee that caused that betrayal of that earlier conviction. (Incidentally, not always reciprocated, as witness my expulsion from the group for aligning with UKIP – an honest, open, purely pragmatic move to help get Brexit done, it had sod all to do with “immigration” beyond advocating a MANAGED policy that actually acknowledged the value of immigration in terms of its economic benefits to the UK – despite the LGA’s official recognition of UKIP as a legitimate member of their Independent Group. That cut no ice with Pauline who had several members of her family living in Europe at the time, so I became a ‘Non-Aligned Independent’, banished from the Group’s room; condemned to take my coffee back in the Member’s Room.)
And yet it could work, allegedly.
Scrutiny could work as its legislation naively intended and, indeed, a number of independent reviews of Shropshire’s scrutiny system have all, without exception and without qualifying their judgement, criticised the Shropshire Council ruling group for continuing to refuse to allow any of its scrutiny committees to be chaired by a member of the opposition.
Trouble is, everything is stacked against that ever happening when a political group has the edge when it comes to taking a vote on the matter, arguing that “that’s democracy”. Indeed it is, but in consequence the odds are stacked against effective scrutiny.
This is the opening page of ‘Statutory Guidance on Overview and Scrutiny in Local and Combined Authorities’ (with a Forward by Rishi Sunak MP)…
“Crucially, this guidance recognises that authorities have democratic mandates and are ultimately accountable to their electorates, and that authorities themselves are best-placed to know which scrutiny arrangements are most appropriate for their own individual circumstances.”
That’s just the first let-out, there are plenty more to follow. Still within the opening few paragraphs…
“The guidance recognises that authorities approach scrutiny in different ways and have different processes and procedures in place, and that what might work well for one authority might not work well in another.”
But of course, the very word “guidance” is the clue for the free-for-all that can follow.
Go on, define it in a way that makes whatever follows if not mandatory then at least tightly enough drawn to cause a conscience or two to twitch in embarrassment.
Difficult, isn’t it?
This guidance has been issued under section 9Q of the Local Government Act 2000 and under paragraph 2(9) of Schedule 5A to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, which requires authorities to have regard to this guidance. In addition, authorities may have regard to other material they might choose to consider, including that issued by the Centre for Public Scrutiny, when exercising their overview and scrutiny functions.
That’s alright then.
1. Executive Summary
Across the council, members and officers are keen to ensure that overview and scrutiny delivers positive outcomes for the people of Shropshire. There is a broad consensus that the function, as it stands, is not fit for purpose – a conclusion with which the peer team agree, and whilst there is a clear commitment to making it work, the best way to progress this has, to date, been unclear.
Heretics creeping in when no one was looking, printing their scurrilous reports?
It was the LGA (Local Government Association).
3. Summary of the Peer Challenge approach
Peer challenges are delivered by experienced elected member and officer peers. The make-up of the peer team reflected [Shropshire Council’s] requirements and the focus of the peer challenge. Peers were selected on the basis of their relevant experience and expertise […]. The peers who delivered the peer challenge at Shropshire were:
Lead officer peer: Ed Hammond, Director, Centre for Public Scrutiny
Member peer: Councillor Terry Hone (Con), Deputy Leader and Finance Portfolio Holder North Hertfordshire District Council and Chairman of Overview and Scrutiny, Hertfordshire County Council
Senior officer peer: Sara Turnbull, Head of Member Services, Buckinghamshire County Council
Senior officer peer: Clare Pattinson, Legal Manager, Governance and Elections, Durham County Council
Challenge Manager: Patricia McMahon, Adviser Local Government Association.
That peer review report should be essential reading not only for every elected Member, but for every member of salaried staff, especially the senior managers and directors of service. Unfortunately, it’s a pdf document…
… so some of you might have difficulty accessing it. In which case, go to the council’s website and put in a search for “scrutiny peer review” and look for “Diversity Peer Challenge Draft Report”.